Scientists sampling for Gulf oil recovery

NOAA scientists gather oysters for contamination testing Credit: NOAA NCCOS

As volunteers train and policymakers debate, scientists are pooling their datasets for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is the behind the scenes portion of region-wide preparations for the impending arrival of oil on land. Along the Gulf coast states, researchers are offering years of sediment, water and plankton samples to the cause of assessing pre-impact conditions in the Gulf. Meanwhile, researchers from the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST) are collecting samples from the seafloor and water column closer to the source of the leaks.

Last week, researchers on an NIUST research vessel called the Pelican, operated by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, were redirected by NOAA to the Gulf of Mexico Consortium’s Methane Hydrate Seafloor Observatory, about nine miles from the Deepwater Horizon site. According to Fred Gorell, public affairs officer for NOAA’s Exploration and Research program, the team had been headed to conduct deep sea coral explorations when the researchers on board decided that their equipment and expertise were needed for more urgent samples. NOAA officials agreed, and now the researchers are on their second mission to gather preliminary ocean data near the leaks.

The first mission made use of equipment originally intended for the deep sea coral expedition and equipment added specifically for the oil spill area. Two preprogrammed autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) were exchanged for a box corer, which was placed some 5,000 feet onto the seafloor—the depth at which the leak is occurring—to take sediment samples.

Using an instrument called a CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth), they measured the water’s salinity (and therefore conductivity), temperature, density and oxygen concentration at various water column depths. They also searched for marine organisms and gathered bottles of water samples to take back to the NIUST lab.

As Ray Highsmith, executive director for NIUST, said of the first mission in a NOAA release, “We plan to sample as close to the well head as is safe, reasonable and allowable. We then plan to travel northwestward toward our long-term study site.”

The second mission, as Gorell described—launched on May 9—loaded new equipment and researchers and headed back to the site. With the new equipment, the scientists plan to take more targeted samples. They now have a remote operated vehicle (ROV)—tethered to the ship and controlled by the researchers—that will “look at the collection of oil that may have congealed in balls at different depths,” said Gorell.

They also have a flourometer on board, which will cast a beam of light to analyze the water composition—specifically in this case, the amount of oil present in the water. Last, they will lower and leave behind a High-frequency Autonomous Acoustic Recording Package (HARP) on the seafloor to record the sounds of marine life in the area. When asked about the general conditions of the sea, Gorell said:

“In the first mission they said the conditions were fine; the second leg was getting quite choppy and hard for operating the equipment. [But things are on track now.] They saw areas where there was no oil, they saw certain areas where oil was fairly significant. In some areas there was oil below the surface, some where dispersants had been used, some where dispersants had not been used at all. They really saw some of every condition.”

The data gathered and analyzed by NOAA and other supporting labs is, “essentially, data that [are] gathered before any sinking of oil” below the surface of the water, he said.

On the coasts, data collection is taking a much different form: Scientists from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi are pooling their preliminary datasets together to aid NOAA, specifically the National Centers for Coastal Oceans Science and the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, in developing baseline conditions of the Gulf. Researchers are collecting water, sediment and oyster samples from 60 sites from the Texas/Louisiana border to southeastern Florida.

In Florida, the Oil Spill Academic Task Force (OSATF), for example, is gathering data from researchers focusing on coastal ecological communities from 15 Florida universities and colleges. Similarly, the Ecological Society of America is currently organizing a database that would allow researchers from the Gulf region to contribute metadata and photos of the area for use by the OSATF. The data would remain the possession of the researcher; however, it could potentially be used by state and federal agencies to assess pre-impact conditions of the wetlands and other ecological communities along the coast.

While the database is being set up, ESA asks researchers who have datasets and/or photographs that could be used to evaluate the biodiversity of the shores of the Gulf of Mexico before the oil spill (e.g., transects, surveys) to submit a description of them to ESAStudentSection@gmail.com with the subject line “Pre-spill information.”

Please make sure to attach a detailed explanation of the material that could be made available (i.e., variables, date of census and location) so that ESA graduate students who have offered to collate all the information can do so in the most effective way. Ultimately, ESA plans to provide summaries of these datasets to researchers based in the Gulf of Mexico to help them establish monitoring sites.

Together, these samples will form a baseline for all future data collection. Spearheaded by NOAA and supported by scientists throughout the region, the collective data will inform future rehabilitation efforts. It is comparatively quiet work to hands-on volunteer efforts, but it is essential for the recovery of Gulf of Mexico ecosystems.

Note: The text was changed to reflect that the AUVs were not used at the oil site.

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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